Facebook is the primary digital communication platform in Myanmar, and in recent months, there’s been a lot of talk about Facebook posts fueling ethnic tension and violence against Myanmar’s Muslim minority, including the Rohingya.
Earlier this year, investigators from the United Nations said Facebook is playing a role in Myanmar’s recent violence by being a platform where hate speech is spread.
“Facebook is the only platform we are using. If you want to find something, you don’t use Google … you use Facebook,” says Htaike Htaike Aung, director of MIDO, a group that counters hate speech and monitors social media.
In September, Aung says almost everyone she knows in Myanmar received a warning via Facebook Messenger: Buddhists received a message about Muslims preparing a 9/11-style attack on Buddhists, and Muslims received a message about the army organizing a crackdown on Muslims. “We didn’t know it would spread at such a large scale,” she says.
After Aung’s organization reported the message to Facebook, it wasn’t taken down for several days. On the day of the rumored attack, Aung says downtown Yangon, the largest city in the country, was deserted. “People were really afraid.”
While Aung is frustrated with Facebook’s response to the escalation of violence in Myanmar, she says it’s more complicated than that, especially for women. Facebook has provided women new opportunities for business, activism and organizing, while also being a hotbed of harassment.
Below are portraits and quotes who see the good, and the bad, that Facebook has to offer.
Hnin Ei, 20
Hnin Ei, 20, is a self-described punk. She grew up in Yangon and lives in a community of artists and musicians. One night, at a gig, a man in her community grabbed her friend’s breast. “I was so angry and I posted on Facebook that I wanted to kick that person out of the gig,” she says.
In that moment, Ei says, letting people know that she was angry about the incident on Facebook made her feel relieved. “Like I’m not alone,” she says. “Sometime it feels good to speak out and share your experience with a lot of people.” The accused never faced consequences.
Later, another man in her community assaulted a friend at a concert. The friend punched the assailant, and streamed the encounter on Facebook. The video went viral in Ei’s community. Ei says she’s seen hundreds of posts from women about their experiences of sexual harassment and assault. These are things that aren’t usually talked about openly in Myanmar, she adds.
Still, Ei has been off Facebook for the past six months. While many women use Facebook to share their voice, she says, their campaigns often fail. “I feel there’s too much hatred on Facebook. People are posting a lot. Their hatred is getting inside of me and I don’t want it.”
Su Nodi Kyaw, 18
Su Nodi Kyaw, 18, lives in the remote town of Hlangbwe. She started using Facebook three years ago to connect with old friends. In one of the first Facebook groups she joined, men posted pictures of naked women. “It was really surprising for me,” she says.
Kyaw immediately left that group, but men still send her messages that make her cringe. They write that she’s beautiful and proposition her to meet in real life. Kyaw has friends who have fallen in love on Facebook, and she says the men in those relationships are often violent. She’s seen this happen so many times that she doesn’t engage with men on Facebook. “I feel so nervous. I try to block them, but it is hard because there are so many of them.”
Daw Minga, 50
Daw Minga, 50, is an ex-nurse now working for a women’s organization in Hpa An. Minga usually looks at Facebook as she is getting ready to go to bed. Lately she’s had a hard time sleeping. “Mostly on Facebook I see posts of abused women,” she says. “I see pictures of men beating women, pictures of blood.”
She recently saw a photo on Facebook of a bleeding, unconscious woman on the ground. The post said the woman was beaten by her husband. She couldn’t sleep that night, and she got up early the next morning and went straight to the market. “I cannot keep quiet,” she says. “I had to show the picture to other women, to tell them to be careful with their husbands. That when you’re husband gets drunk, be careful, and share this information.”
Thet Thet Wai, 21
Thet Thet Wai, 21, says women in Myanmar are supposed to stay inside, keep their opinions to themselves and wear modest clothes. “Sometimes I start to internalize [those norms], and think that I’m weak,” she says. “When I’m lifting weights is one of the only times I feel strong.”
Soon after Wai joined a Yangon gym, she came in third place at a female bodybuilding competition, resulting in some 20,000 new followers on Facebook, where she started uploading videos of herself lifting, squatting and showing off her abs.
Wai used the platform to speak out against a high-profile rape, and became one of many Internet celebrities advocating that convicted rapists face the death penalty.
Wai says she became involved in the campaign because she sees sexual assault all around her. Even when she posts her workout videos to her Facebook page, she gets comments from strangers that say things like, “If a woman is dressed like you of course there’s going to be rape in this country.”
“There is fear that has been instilled in me through Myanmar culture,” she says.
Wai says she’s open about her bodybuilding on Facebook to fight gender roles in Myanmar. “I’m encouraging others to do this, so women aren’t seen as weak victims,“ she says.
Fatima, 28, whose real name is being withheld due to concerns about her family’s response, graduated with a science degree, but she comes from a traditional family in which women don’t work outside of their homes. Fatima wanted to do something other than housework, and her friends had always told her how much they enjoyed her cooking. She started a halal food shop on Facebook. Fatima gets about 15 orders a day via Facebook Messenger, and recently hired someone to help her make deliveries.
Fatima’s family has been in Yangon for two generations. The family is Muslim, with Rohingya roots in Rakhine state.
Fatima doesn’t advertise her food as Rohingya, though. She fears that people will stop buying her food, or will force her to close her shop if she uses the word Rohingya.
Gar Mani, 27
Gar Mani, 27, works as a digital rights activist with MIDO in Yangon. She moved to Yangon to study computer programming seven years ago from a small town near Mandalay. “Before I came to Yangon, my parents said don’t stay near Muslims, don’t eat Muslim food,” she recalls. “Actually, I hate to admit this, but I used to hate Muslims for no reason.”
She changed her mind when she saw that people were dying as a result of religious conflict in Rakhine state. It was around that time that she started volunteering with MIDO’s Panzagar campaign to encourage people to use positive speech instead of hate speech.
Back home, Mani’s family is concerned about the work she does. Her mom urges her to be careful around Muslims, and sends her Facebook messages about violent Muslims. Mani says those messages create fear and hatred, and she wants to live in a Myanmar that’s peaceful. She responds to her mother with examples of Muslims working for peace in Myanmar.
Today, Mani monitors Facebook for hate speech and helps MIDO build a curriculum about digital literacy and rumor management. “I grew up praying to Buddha before going to sleep every night, but after working with these kinds of things on Facebook, I can’t be religious anymore,” Gar Mani says.
Nan Hnin Hnin Wai, 49
In a remote town near the Thai border, Nan Hnin Hnin Wai, 49, has two Facebook accounts: a personal account, and an account for a women’s organization she leads. On the organization’s page, she shares posts from trainings on safety and health care for women who can’t participate in the organization’s program.
On Hnin Hnin Wai’s personal Facebook account, she runs her business. She previously conducted business by walking door-to-door with heavy binders to market and fill orders. On Facebook, she says she can collect twice as many orders. “Facebook changed my life so obviously,” she says. “Now I can stay home and take care of my family.”
Nan Nyat, 28
Nan Nyat, 28, got off a bus in her hometown of Hpa An at 3 a.m. after a seven-hour journey from Yangon. She hopped on her scooter, and during her ride home she noticed a man following her. She sped up, but he got closer and closer, yelling lewd, sexual comments. When she turned around, she recognized him as a policeman. He got close to her and asked Nyat if she wanted to go home with him.
When she got home, she wanted to take action, but she knew she couldn’t go to the police. The only thing she could think to do was post about the experience on Facebook. Moments after she posted details about the encounter, she received dozens of comments from women sharing similar encounters.
Nyat says she hopes her story will help warn other women.
Daw Soe Soe Htay, 55
Daw Soe Soe Htay, 55, lives in a small town in the south eastern state of Karin, Myanmar. She joined Facebook three years ago to recruit women to her environmental campaigns online. While Facebook has helped her expand her campaign, she says she sees too many lewd videos on Facebook and says she worries about what will happen to the next generation.
Nan Kay Kay, 18
When Nan Kay Kay, 18, signed up for Facebook a few years ago in the remote town of Hlangbwe, she was surprised to receive pornagraphic messages and requests for sex. “Every time I posted a picture of myself, a man replied with vulgar comments. So I stopped posting pictures.”
A few months ago, a man sent her a picture of himself having sex with a woman. She felt so ashamed that she logged off Facebook and hasn’t logged back on since. She says she is still trying to forget those images.
Nandar, 23, grew up in conservative northern Shan state and now lives in Yangon. When she started menstruating, she was banned from her home when she bled. The neighbors dropped off food for her, but no one touched her because menstruating women in her community are considered dirty.
“I felt like an animal,” she says.
Nandar says her community was so conservative she didn’t think to question its menstruation rules. But everything changed one day when Nandar’s dad was sick and fainted. Nandar’s mother yelled for Nandar, and Nandar ran upstairs to find her mom standing in a corner. Nandar tried lifting her dad, but he was too heavy. Nandar’s mother refused to help because she was menstruating.
From that day on, Nandar touched everything while she was on her period. She also began to read feminist literature and wrote essays about the taboos of menstruation. She helped translate Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “We Should All Be Feminists.” That was the turning point, she says, when she decided to focus her life’s work on addressing gender roles in Myanmar. To reach people who couldn’t read, she decided to make videos instead of essays, and to share them on Facebook. “It’s easy to reach out to a large audience,” she says of Facebook.
Her first video was about the stigma of menstruation in her rural community in northern Myanmar, and she produced it in her local language. The video was viewed nearly 2,000 times, mostly, Nandar says, by people in her community. She went on to make videos about common catcalling in Myanmar, lessons for parents about raising girls, and a parody of people blaming victims of rape.
Nandar doesn’t consider herself a Facebook celebrity, but believes that her videos will one day reach the entire country.
Additional reporting by Aye Min Thant and Nang Myint Aung.